“We can’t trust product to deliver.”
“Sales is just a bunch of sleazy, coin-operated machines”
“These bugs never get fixed. Product doesn’t care about CS…”
At the companies I’ve worked at, and those where I’ve coached PMs, relationships between departments have not always been great. In fact, they have sometimes been down right toxic, like the quotes above.
As much as it may feel good to point fingers, it doesn’t really help in such situations, and it’s the responsibility of product managers like you to improve them.
Yet, to fix them requires real change, new habits, and a lot communication. It’s absolutely possible (and common) to be well-liked as an individual human at your company, while the reputation of your product team or the product org as a whole is poor.
Today, we dig into those common issues, and how to hit the reset button so you can have great relationships with other departments and especially your key stakeholders within them.
How to Reset Your Stakeholder Relationships to Improve How You Work with Other Departments
Before we dive into how to fix this, let’s look at where things go wrong. There are a few common mistakes that lead to stakeholders and other departments being at odds with product teams. If any of these resonate with you, then read on:
- Sales sells features that don’t exist yet without consulting product.
- Sales and/or marketing complain about ship dates slipping often.
- Customer Success keeps trying to come up with new ways to get the attention of product to fix things they see daily.
- An internal feature request board filed by customer success, support, and/or account management has become a bloated graveyard rarely reviewed or followed up on.
- Executives keep asking for new ways to be updated on product.
- Product managers feel misunderstood, or overwhelmed by demands and requests.
- New feature launches are extremely stressful, and rarely well coordinated with needs from other teams like marketing promotion, sales training, or help doc creations and updates by support.
And there’s likely others you’ve experienced. The underlying theme of all of them is that you have a stakeholder relationship issue one or both ways:
- PM -> Outward: You’re having trouble getting what you need from other departments for launches, customer insights and needs, sales demands, etc.
- PM <- Inward: Other departments are complaining that product isn’t informing them effectively and delivering on what they need to be at their best in their role.
As a product manager, your job is to be a coalition builder. A large portion of your job is about listening and learning. You’re also challenged with building buy in and support for the things that you believe need done. Fortunately, that makes you perfectly suited to reset your relationships with other departments and stakeholders, regardless of who is to blame for past issues.
Build Stakeholder Partnerships; don’t manage them.
One of the phrases you hear commonly that PMs need to do is “Stakeholder Management”, which I think is a misnomer.
Your job is not to manage them. Your job is also not to keep them happy.
Instead, you should treat them like a Partner.
- You share your goals with them and listen to theirs, so you can see where you’re aligned and work through areas where there may be conflicts.
- You let them know what you need and what you’re working on so they can help you.
- You treat them as a valued source of information, and share what information you have that could help or impact them.
- You bring structure to your partnerships with them by thinking ahead, asking good questions, and communicating the information they must know based on their needs and role.
- When they make requests, you genuinely listen and then explain your priorities so they understand how their requests fit in, or why you have to say “not yet.”
This is all instead of “Management”, which often means:
- Fielding their requests
- Trying to keep them happy, or avoiding conflict
- Dealing with their frustrations or outbursts
- Selling them on your product decisions
So the question becomes: How do you build stakeholder partnerships?
How to build Stakeholder Partnerships
There are 3 key ingredients that underpin all of the recommendations in the remainder of this post:
- Empathy: Understand your stakeholders, and help them understand you.
- Transparency: When both sides understand clearly the other’s goals, it gets easier to resolve conflicts.
- Structure: Product managers should lead these discussions, and in doing so, there will be better discussions, and you will be less likely to have significant conflict.
If you’re looking to hit the reset button to stop managing stakeholders and start making them partners, here’s the key things to do:
1. Understand the needs and motives of your stakeholders
The first thing to do is to consider who your stakeholders are. Based on that, you’ll be able to think about what you need to get to know about them.
For example, if someone is in the sales org, we know:
- Quota: They have a number they have to hit that will always be top of mind.
- Closer’s mindset: When you tell them something, they’ll be thinking about it through the lens of how it will help them close more deals.
- Successful customers: No one wants to sell a lemon, so they’ll be interested in being sure they’re selling something that will work for the leads they work to close.
Also keep in mind that depending on their level in the organization, they’ll be thinking differently:
- VP: Is thinking about the high level number the entire organization has to hit, and how changes impact the entire organization. They’ll also likely be thinking more long term as they consider head count, and multiple future quarters numbers they have to build towards.
- Director: Will be thinking about the sales team that reports to them. If that’s a specific vertical, territory, or other type, recognize it will change what they’re interested in and what they’ll be lobbying for.
- Individual Contributor in Sales: They’ll be focused on their specific leads for their territory or vertical and their number to hit, and are less likely to be aware of things going on outside of their team. They’ll be the most short term thinking of all.
As you prepare for what stakeholders you’re going to engage, keep in mind what level they are in the organization and how that may impact what they need from you, what they may lobby you for, and how they can help you most.
If you’re unsure, the best thing you can do is ask a few questions to really learn what matters to them like:
- What’s your biggest priority this quarter? (or next quarter if approaching EOQ)
- How do you fit into your organization?
- Can you help me understand how your responsibilities are part of your department’s larger goals?
- Based on what I’ve shared we’re working on, who else should I talk to? Why did you choose them?
While the first few questions give you the foundation for your relationship with the stakeholder you’re talking to, the last one is really underrated; they can help you navigate the other departments more effectively as they’ll know who else to talk to who could be helpful, has been talking about things you want to learn about, or that complement what they share.
Most importantly: Don’t assume. It’s always better to ask and be sure, than make a guess and then jump to the wrong conclusions.
2. Consider them one of many inputs you have
You should be sourcing data, input, feedback, and information from all over. Just a few of an endless number of examples would include:
- Data and analytics from Looker, SQL queries, your analytics tools, Full Story, heat maps, etc.
- Support ticket patterns, bugs, and biggest pains from the Customer Success team.
- Top reasons you’re losing deals from the Sales team and Salesforce reports.
- Key requests from big and important customers from your Account Managers.
- Market research and analysis as well as surveys and other data from Marketing.
- Financial impacts to changes in pricing, payouts, and onboarding experiments from Finance and Ops.
- Error and bug reports, site and specific page speeds, and overall health of your product from the Engineering team.
- Usability issues and customer-product interaction problems from the Design team.
- Insights from your own direct customer interviews, surveys, and feedback mechanisms.
A key skill of being a great PM is turning requests from these many teams into actionable, and prioritizable insights.
To do that, you need to develop the skill of asking them the right questions when they come to you with a request. Some simple questions that can tell you a lot include:
- How often does this happen?
- What is the root problem or cause you think that’s leading to this?
- How does this impact customers? (What kinds of deals are we losing because of this? Are people churning or rage tweeting about it?)
- How can you help me quantify the potential impact of the change you’re suggesting?
- My priorities right now are to focus on [X]. Do you see a way this would help with that goal? How?
What you’re doing here is teaching them how to take their requests and put them into a format you can act on one way or the other (either address it, or have good reason not to). It also gives you a way to easily push back, because something is far outside your focus right now.
A Sales Example…
For example, if an Account Executive comes to you and says, “We really need to build X! I just lost a deal because of it!”
If you then ask, “How often does this happen?” and they say, “Well, it’s the first time,” you can easily then tell them:
“Okay. I understand it’s not fun to lose deals like this. If it happens 5 more times, I’ll sit down with you and we’ll go over all 5 deals to look for patterns and figure out what we can do to help.”
What’s particularly important here is you’re teaching them how you work. You’re not only letting them know the information you need, but also the threshold (“5 more times”) for it to matter to you.
I used such an approach with a past Customer Success team I worked with. That led them to only raise concerns for issues they had to address 10 or more times in a single month. This took me from getting dozens of requests every time we met to an organized list of 2-3 asks per month.
This proved to be a huge win-win:
- We fixed their most important problems, reducing their time spent working around the same issues over and over.
- Because they knew I was listening, they put in more work to organize the information I needed so I could quickly and easily take back the bug information to the engineering team to fix.
Your other department stakeholders can be a wealth of information, and even help you prioritize problems when you bring the right questions to the table, and teach them how you think like in the examples above.
Remember: “Not yet”, instead of “No.”
One thing to keep in mind is that constantly hearing “No” from the product team can be really frustrating, especially if they don’t feel like other things are coming fast enough.
That’s why a key phrase for you to remember is to say, “Not Yet” often.
When you say that, you can then explain your current priorities and reasoning to them. That will often help them understand why they have to wait for what they asked for. It may even help them remember something else they need that *is* related to your current goals.
If you’re interested in a deeper dive into this topic, there’s more to Not Yet you can read about in detail here.
3. Bring the structure to your relationship and every meeting
Every meeting you have with a stakeholder should have a purpose (or multiple).
Prepare an agenda and bring it with you to the meeting. Let them know so they can add things as well, and plan ahead for any questions you ask (especially if it involves asking for numbers or other data).
Most importantly, keep in mind you should be consciously driving the relationship.
By bringing an agenda, questions to ask them, and a plan for what you want to get from the relationship you will effectively make the switch from stakeholder management to building stakeholder partnerships.
Just like the Product Thesis challenges you to make sure you’ve thought through everything you need to kickoff a major project, following the approach outlined here in this post will help you think through everything you need to do with your stakeholders.
Take time to plan ahead, and the meetings with your stakeholders will go much better.
4. Iterate on the relationship as you work more with them
Stakeholder management is not one-size-fits all. You will need to adapt to their work styles, personalities, how helpful they are, and how relevant their work is to yours.
This is all likely to change over time, so be prepared to make changes accordingly. A few examples that you should keep in mind:
- Frequency: Meet with stakeholders that are key to your project more often, and as they become less critical, meet less often. These recurring meetings are sometimes called Peer 1 on 1s.
- Helpfulness: If someone is difficult to work with, and doesn’t add a lot of value to your efforts, consider if someone else is better to meet with in that department.
- Triangulation: If another team is critical to your work, a single point of contact may not be enough, so consider getting multiple perspectives varying by seniority, focus, or other vectors that give you the best view.
- Your Needs: When you’re doing exploratory research, someone who can introduce you to the perfect fit is most helpful. Meanwhile, when thinking strategically, someone more senior may be a better fit. Adjust and adapt accordingly
Over time, you’ll develop instincts around this, which will help you know who to reach out to and how often will be ideal to talk to them. You’ll also start to recognize what questions are best to ask each person you speak with.
If you’re new to this, or hitting the reset button in a big way, keep in mind this is a process. It will take time.
The goal of this post is to help you re-frame your relationships around this new approach, and you’ll work with them and your other stakeholders over time to perfect these partnerships.
Recap: Remember these 3 things
There’s been a lot in this post, so here is a reminder of the most important things for you to do to turn stakeholder management into stakeholder partnerships:
1) Set the rules and manage their expectations
Teach them to fish by setting thresholds for escalating to you vs. sending everything. Communicate why you choose that and be open to tweaking it with their feedback.
Frame the relationship by bringing an agenda every time and asking good questions of them. Over time they’re likely to start doing the same.
2) Show your thinking and priorities:
When they understand what you’re working towards, they can share ways to help you with insights, data, and introductions to key customers.
They’ll also understand why you may need to say “Not yet” to some of their requests.
But that only happens if you share it with them, so work to provide a concise overview of your work and thinking.
3) Get to know them and iterate:
When you build rapport with them, and listen to their needs, too, they’re more likely to have empathy for you as well.
You and their needs will change. Iterate on the frequency of meeting, topics you cover, how you explain your thinking, and questions you ask them to evolve the relationship effectively.
Tell them this is an iterative process as well, so they can help shape and improve them, too. You never know where a good idea or insight may come from!
Have questions? Leave a comment, or if you want hands on help for yourself or your product organization, you can learn more about my coaching and consulting here: BeCustomerDriven.com
To continue your learning to improve your stakeholder relationships, read these:
- Learn more about mastering Peer 1 on 1s here.
- Improve your ability to work with many different kinds of people with the nearly 100-year old classic: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People
- Learn to navigate complex systems and products with the excellent book: Thinking in Systems: A Primer
- Communicate more clearly with your engineering and design peers and clarify you’re thinking with the rest of your organization by learning how to write a Product Thesis.
And if you’re looking for an experienced product leader to help coach you or a team member, or need hands on consulting to solve your hardest B2B Product challenges, see what others are saying about working with me and sign up to talk here.